Finally. Finalmente. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put GOP front-runner, showman-billionaire Donald Trump under sustained attack, and put him on the defensive in CNN’s Republican Presidential debate from Texas. It was Trump under attack, attack, attack — and going on a tough counter attack. But did they wait too long? Most analysts say yes. One political scientist’s nearly infallible model now has Trump winning the Republican nomination — and beating any Democrat, and becoming President.
Too little, too late? The odds say, yes. But it was one of the most fiery debates yet. (You can watch the entire debate on this You Tube page.)
Here’s a roundup of old news media, new news media, blogs and tweets. These are excerpts. Go to the link to read each article in full.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz threw everything they had at Donald Trump at Thursday night’s Republican debate, hoping to find some way to stop the clear front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination.
Rubio in particular came out hot, seemingly dumping his opposition research on Trump as he attacked the billionaire on his eponymous university, his business record and his core political beliefs.
Trump, for his part, mostly kept his cool through the two-hour debate in Houston even as he was the focus of relentless attacks from Cruz and Rubio.
Both Cuban-American senators are trailing Trump badly in the delegate race, and need to do something fast to turn around the race.
A dozen states and U.S. territories will hold contests on Tuesday in the biggest day of the primary yet. Trump is leading polls in a majority of states, and has dominated the last three contests, in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
As a result, Cruz and Rubio were desperate on Thursday to take Trump down a peg. The front-runner, for his part, dished out a series of counter-attacks while repeatedly returning to a singular theme: that he was the one non-politician on the stage who could provide answers for the nation.
He also largely dialed back his stage presence, seemingly content to run out the clock and protect his lead.
Rubio had the best attack line of the night while badgering Trump about his plan is to replace ObamaCare.
Trump responded by repeatedly saying the centerpiece of his plan would be to allow insurers to cross state lines.
“Now he’s the one repeating himself,” the Florida senator said, cracking a big smile as the crowd erupted in cheers and laughter.
In the GOP debate days before the New Hampshire primary, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has has since dropped out of the race, accused Rubio of repeating scripted lines on stage, in a moment that hurt Rubio.
On Thursday, it was Rubio who turned the tables on an opponent.
Trump responded, calling Rubio’s previous debate performance a “meltdown”: “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”
“I saw you repeat yourself five times five minutes ago,” responded the senator.
The crowd again hollered its approval for a beaming Rubio, who piled on from there: “He says five things: Everyone is dumb, he’s going to make America great again, win, win, win, he’s rising at the polls, lines around the state.”
Something profound happened on the stage in Houston on Thursday night. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz stopped focusing on each other long enough to turn toward the person who is actually beating both of them and at this point favored to win the Republican nomination: Donald Trump.
Cruz dismissed Trump as someone who’d discovered certain concerns — who’d discovered conservatism, really — only when he became a candidate. Cruz said that while he was working to combat the illegal immigration that so inflames Trump now, “Where was Donald? He was firing Dennis Rodman on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’”
But Rubio turned in Trump’s direction with particular force. With ferociousness, in fact. He recited a meticulously memorized litany of Trump’s transgressions, especially those that contradict Trump’s words now: the illegal immigrants that Trump reportedly hired for his construction projects, the litigation against a college bearing his name, multiple bankruptcies associated with him.
Referring to Trump’s promised barrier along the Mexican border, Rubio sniped: “If he builds the wall the way he built Trump Towers, he’ll be using illegal immigrant labor to do it.”
He went after the notion that Trump is a good businessman. He went after the idea that Trump is a straight talker. He called Trump a liar — repeatedly.
In other words, he finally hit Trump where Trump lives: image-wise. This had to happen, because one explanation for Trump’s success is how reluctant his adversaries have been to confront him as they quarreled with one another instead.
And this had to hurt Trump, because he was shown in a harsher light than he’d been shown in at any previous debate, and his face reddened in the glare.
But Thursday night may well have been too late, and Trump has been made to mimic a ripe tomato before — with minimal political damage to him.
Besides which, Trump at times pushed back as effectively as possible, brushing off charges of hypocrisy and painting Rubio as a pipsqueak with no knowledge of business, and Cruz as an obnoxious scold despised by his Senate colleagues. Those were the smart colors to apply to them.
Three weeks after being pummeled on a debate stage in New Hampshire, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida showed Thursday night that he had learned his lesson, launching repeated and aggressive attacks on front-runner Donald Trump in the hope of slowing the New York businessman’s march to the nomination.
In New Hampshire, Rubio faltered under relentless attacks from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. On Thursday, it was as if he were channeling Christie’s prosecutorial style. He unloaded a series of charges from Trump’s past against the billionaire reality TV star.
He mocked his opponent as shallow on the issues. He needled him and interrupted him as Trump has interrupted others in past debates. It was the kind of performance his supporters had hoped he would deliver.
Rubio wasn’t alone in challenging Trump at Thursday’s debate. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, hoping to boost his candidacy after a disappointing third-place finish in last week’s South Carolina primary, used his time to try to undermine Trump’s conservative credentials and his electability.
Trump would be a high-risk nominee, Cruz charged, one whose inconsistencies on issues and past friendships with and contributions to Democrats would leave him vulnerable in the general election.
The question is whether any of it will change the minds of Republican voters ahead of two critical weeks in March in the Republican race. Though he found himself attacked from the two candidates on either side of him on the stage, Trump remained typically aggressive. “Swing for the fences,” he taunted his rivals part way through the debate.
It was that kind of night for the Republicans — a night that repeatedly descended into personal insults, with the candidates shouting over one another.
Down to five candidates on the stage and with many seeing the race narrowing to Trump, Rubio and Cruz, rarely has there been a time when the stakes were as high. From here on, every Trump victory adds to his luster as the front-runner, and Thursday was the first moment for his rivals to change perceptions of where the race could be heading.
A slimmer field of Republican candidates — just five remain — took the stage Thursday night for their 10th debate and last face-to-face session before Super Tuesday, when close to half the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination are up for grabs. It was a loud and raucous affair. With the stage lights in Houston still bright, here are five takeaways.
Marco Rubio ate his Wheaties
After long shying away from a direct confrontation with Donald Trump, Marco Rubio went at him early, caustically and relentlessly….
It’s tough to debate a candidate who makes up his own facts and creates his own reality.
Trump once more demonstrated a willingness to say things that are plainly untrue, claiming, for instance, the U.S. is being overrun by illegal immigrants at a time evidence shows that illegal immigration is in decline….
Swing and miss!
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has more at stake on Super Tuesday than any candidate in the race. His home state votes along with several other Southern states. If Cruz falls short of a banner performance, his campaign could be essentially over.
Even so, the champion debater was far less than the commanding presence he had been in earlier sessions and more than once allowed Trump, a novice, to get the better of their exchanges….
Brother from another planet
John Kasich sounded like he dropped on the debate stage from another time and place — one that is kinder and gentler, to use the phrase of former President George H.W. Bush, who was seated in the hometown audience and greeted with a prolonged ovation…
Beware of snap judgments, including those you’ve just read. Trump was widely seen as having hurt himself in the last GOP debate, when he went after President George W. Bush in unusually strident terms.
Marco Rubio came to play.
The Florida senator delivered what was easily his best debate performance yet Thursday night, hammering frontrunner Donald Trump repeatedly on his character, his business record, and his claims to being a conservative. It was the performance he needed. The question now is whether it will matter at all.
Fresh off a three-state winning streak, Trump is close to being anointed the Presumptive Nominee by the media. With just days to go before the crucial sting of Super Tuesday primaries, Trump appears to be leading in most if not every state on the verge of a contest. He has the momentum. He has the math on his side.
He had a terrible night.
“Donald mentioned…that his position on immigration is what’s driven this debate,” Rubio said, leaping at his opponent after weeks of trying to play nice. “The truth is, though, a lot of these positions that he’s now taking are new to him.”
The man who has been compared to a robot, a guy unable to ever stray from his talking points, proceeded like the Terminator from there.
The old political rule is to attack your enemy’s strengths. And that’s exactly what Rubio was doing. Trump has framed himself as a brilliant businessman animated by his concern for the common man, the little guy, the silent majority. He’s never marketed himself as an orthodox conservative, but that’s where his opponents have hit him again and again with no result.
But Rubio tried something different with his attacks Thursday night. He tried to prove Trump is a huckster, a charlatan who doesn’t know what he’s talking about when pressed for specifics, a trust-fund baby looking to rip off hard-working Americans in order to make a dishonest buck. It went to the heart of Trump’s appeal, and for that reason it just might stick.
Rubio looked and sounded different than we’ve ever seen him. But so did Trump. For a man who makes so many facial expressions, he rarely displays any recognizable human emotion, preferring instead to stay aloof and dismissive. Thursday night was different. He was, at turns, deeply frustrated and consumed by abject terror. Things were going very wrong, very quickly—and right before his squinty eyes.
Trump nervously leaned the full weight of his body onto the lectern and then tapped his fingers furiously at its sides. He leaned his head back to the right and pursed his lips tightly. He looked like a fish.
When Rubio spoke, Trump closed his eyes—as if to will Rubio to disappear from the stage altogether.
It’s worth putting in the section of news reaction former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney’s anti-Trump tweets throughout the night. Some of them:
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 26, 2016
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 26, 2016
No legit reason @realDonaldTrump can't release returns while being audited, but if scared, release earlier returns no longer under audit.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 26, 2016
The Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza lists winners and losers from the debate. Excerpts:
* Marco Rubio: This was not only Rubio’s best debate performance. It was the best debate performance by any candidate in any debate so far in the 2016 election….What Rubio’s stellar performance means is that the race between now and Tuesday — and March 15 and beyond — will be cast as a two-man showdown between Trump and Rubio. That’s the only chance Rubio has of winning. What I don’t know is whether the punches Rubio landed will do any lasting damage to Trump. Nothing else has — yet.
* Mitt Romney: The 2012 Republican presidential nominee has been a low-profile figure in this race. No longer!
Sure, Romney came under a full-frontal assault from Trump during the debate. But, questions over when Trump and the other candidates will release their taxes took up a considerable amount of debate time. That demonstrates Romney is still able to drive conversation within the GOP.
He has a few others. Losers?
* Ted Cruz: Cruz watched — and I do mean watched — as Rubio turned the race into a two-man contest between he and Trump. Cruz was strangely absent from the main back-and-forths of the night. To the extent Cruz was able to get into a debate with Trump, he spent his time hitting the real estate mogul for making past donations to Democrats. Cast me as skeptical that that line of attack will work.
* Donald Trump: This wasn’t Trump’s worst debate. In fact, it might not even be in the bottom half of his performances. He generally counter-punched admirably — particularly against Cruz. But, Rubio got the better of Trump on several occasions; the Florida senator found ways to embarrass and mock Trump, which is something no one in any previous debate has been able to do. Rubio also effectively exposed the thinness of Trump’s policy solutions especially on health care.
* Ben Carson/John Kasich: You could be forgiven for having forgotten that either the retired neurosurgeon or the Ohio governor were part of this debate. Carson and Kasich got almost no questions and the ones they did get they seemed unprepared to handle. Carson somehow made a fruit salad reference (see above) when asked about Supreme Court nominees. Kasich used every question to talk about how we all need to get along. Both men felt entirely ancillary to the proceedings — as though they were engaged in a different event than Trump, Rubio and Cruz were participating in. Which, of course, they sort of were.
The interesting thing about Rubio and Cruz attacking Trump is that it wasn’t as much about convincing Trump voters to switch allegiance as it was about being seen the Trump alternative. Rubio clearly won that argument. He was much more effective than Cruz.
But for someone who was attacked literally from both sides for more than two hours, Trump actually did fairly well. After months of practice, Trump is much better at these debates. I’m not sure he would have held up to these attacks a few months ago. But neither Rubio or Cruz came close to landing a knockout punch. They drew blood, but Trump was still standing.
Trump is not good when talking about actual issues but he’s great when talking about winning. He repeatedly referred to his huge lead in the polls and his big victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. It’s effective for two reasons: 1. It suggests the attacks by Rubio and Cruz are from desperate candidates and 2. the media loves to cover the horserace.
John Kasich was a non-factor in the debate. But after Rubio established himself as the leading Trump-alternative, expect the calls for him to leave the race to get louder. The longer he stays in the race, the more he helps Trump. He’s now playing the role of spoiler.
Ben Carson talked about fruit salad.
The runaway winner of this debate was the Democratic party. If there are many more nights like this one, the Democratic nominee will have a much easier time in November. It was a truly pathetic mess.
Tonight America finally got to see the most talented conservative debaters in the business – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – team up to attack Donald Trump as an ill-informed, empty-talking-points-dependent blowhard and lifelong liberal Democrat who doesn’t take a punch well. Cruz was pretty close to his A game, which is very good indeed, getting better as the night went on; Rubio was spitting straight fire from the starting gun, mocking Trump with ease and contempt and a smile on his face. If anyone who watched this debate still votes for Trump, we really have no excuse for becoming France, and we should turn in Old Glory right now and seek a retirement home for former great powers that no longer care about freedom and the Constitution.
Rubio, other than a few minutes with Chris Christie (a man who never once had the stones to turn his formidable guns against Trump) has had a marvelous string of debate moments, but tonight was a Rubio we have not seen before, and he took it to another level, making complete fools of people who claimed as late as this afternoon that Rubio would not attack Trump tonight. Instead, he seems to have decided to lull Trump into a false sense of security by holding his fire until he could see the whites of Trump’s eyes. Rubio went hard after the contrast between his own humble origins and Trump’s rich-kid silver-spoon upbringing (and what a mockery it makes of Trump’s claim to be the working-class hero), sneering that if Trump hadn’t inherited so much money he’d be selling watches on the street in Manhattan. Trump was reduced to sputtering that he only got a one million dollar loan from his daddy.
Welcome to Thunderdome. For long stretches, this was one of the best debates of the cycle; certainly the toughest, at times the nastiest, and sometimes the funniest and most fiery. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz sense that time is running out and they needed to start landing punches. They probably succeeded with Trump University. Of course, every time it got really good, CNN’s anchor Wolf Blitzer shifted to the human time-outs, John Kasich and Ben Carson. Neither man added much to the debate, other than Carson’s odd reference to fruit salad and Kasich’s strange suggestion that the president should be sorting out the encryption dispute between the FBI and Apple personally behind closed doors, and not having the dispute argued on the front pages of the newspapers. Will it change anything? To judge from the results of the three most recent contests, Trump won all the recent debates. Most of his supporters seem unshakable. But after Trump’s big win in Nevada, and some gloomy poll numbers in recent days both Rubio and Cruz supporters needed to see some real fight in their guys tonight, and they got it. The problem for both is that both of them were good — Cruz with his trademark prosecutorial cross examination style, Rubio with humor and a relentless pace of Trump’s unsavory past — so neither man is going to feel much pressure to drop out.
Over the course of the last 48 hours, the Rubio campaign pulled one of the great head-fakes in recent political history by telegraphing that they weren’t at all interested in attacking Donald Trump at tonight’s debate.
Technically, this wasn’t a ruse because Rubio didn’t just attack Trump. He went after him with a chainsaw. And Ted Cruz brought a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.
If the normal laws of politics applied to the 2016 race, it would have been a catastrophic night for Trump. By any reasonable measure, Trump had a meltdown. He was exposed as a policy lightweight on a host of issues: A health care repeal plan which consists entirely of “removing the lines.” He defended Planned Parenthood (again!) by claiming that abortions are only a small part of what the organization does. Most amazingly, he claimed that his sister, who is a judge, “signed a bill” with Judge Sam Alito. Two judges . . . “signed a bill.” It’s enough to make you wonder: If a single exchange between Rubio and Chris Christie two weeks ago cost him several spots in New Hampshire, how could this two-hour demolition not cost Trump a great deal?
But will it hurt him? Probably not by itself. But if tonight’s debate is the beginning of a sustained counterattack against Trump—by Cruz and Rubio themselves on the stump, by their campaigns on the air, and by reluctant donors who now see that there’s a blueprint for dismantling the orange menace—then it could mark the beginning of the end for Trump.
What’s the blueprint? Stylistically, Rubio showed that you don’t need to out-argue Trump. You can mock him. And over the course of the debate, Rubio and Cruz put into play a number of issues that are real problems for Trump:
* His fishy tax returns, which he falsely insists he can’t release because he’s being audited.
* His total lack of a plan for replacing Obamacare.
* His lies about supporting/opposing both Iraq and Libya (which he repeated during the debate).
Yet Trump cannot be destroyed in a day. No matter how disastrous tonight’s debate was, defeating him will require time, resources, discipline, and initiative. Cruz and Rubio have, finally, shown how it can be done.
But if this debate isn’t followed by a pro-longed counter-offensive, then it will serve as nothing except a preview of what the Democrats will do to Trump in July.
A cross section of Tweets:
Some Tweets from the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, who has the best track record of analyzing and predicting national elections (the anti-Dick Morris):
This has become embarrassing. The rude out-of-control audience has made the candidates worse. Now spectators YELLING things. Disgraceful.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) February 26, 2016
Rubio had a good line prepared on Trump's 5 repetitive statements, but he buried it–with the help of a noisy, irritating audience.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) February 26, 2016
Every Republican who's made a choice thinks their candidate is winning tonight. That's why, so far, little has changed–just reinforcement.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) February 26, 2016
Why does Trump get this platform immediately after the debate? It's patently unfair
— Kyle Kondik (@kkondik) February 26, 2016
— Paul Begala (@PaulBegala) February 26, 2016
— Paul Begala (@PaulBegala) February 26, 2016
— Michael Smerconish (@smerconish) February 26, 2016
NJ Poll: Who won the CNN debate? Trump by +80% https://t.co/NEpObBABX8
— Poor Paula (@PoorPaula) February 26, 2016
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 26, 2016
— Chris Loesch (@ChrisLoesch) February 26, 2016
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 25, 2016
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.